Star Report

Parents of children that attend Zaca Center in the Rancho de Maria housing tract in Buellton were devastated this week when they learned their school is in danger of closing as of August 2017.

“What I love about Zaca is the openness they give each child exactly what they need in order for them to learn. Having both of my children on the autism spectrum it has been an amazing few years watching them grow and develop. The community needs this school. They need these teachers,” said Janson Harwood, parent of two children who have been in the program.

Zaca Center was started in 1989 by Susan Walsh of Santa Ynez. Walsh now has her doctoral degree in early childhood development and is currently an assistant professor of early childhood development at University of La Verne.

“I actually got to design the building and the program which was so incredible. We were one of the first full day programs as we had a great relationship with Jonata and had bus service directly to the school so parents could feel safe about their kids whereabouts,” Walsh said.

The neighborhood was so attractive for new families because of the built in preschool, Walsh added.

Walsh said she had a previous day care program in Solvang and had waiting lists for Zaca because at that time women were really going into the work force and families needed more options for full time child care.

“The flagpole is actually a really neat piece of history as it came from the Olympic arena when it was held in Los Angeles,” Walsh said.

“I feel that Zaca is a tremendous attribute to the community, as it changed functions to became an inclusion school as those are lacking in the valley,” she added.

Walsh owned and operated it until 1997, when she sold it to the Santa Barbara County Education Office, who has operated it since under direction from Shelley Grand. As Walsh said Zaca is an inclusion preschool that accommodates children with special needs. Zaca children spend a substantial portion of the day outdoors exploring, experimenting and investigating their environment.

“My son Eli started in Yellow Group in 2015 with hardly any verbal communication skills and through peer interaction, integrated classrooms and special needs instructors he is now in pre-kindergarten at Oak Valley beginning a new chapter,” Harwood said.

She added her daughter Betty-Jo is currently attending and started with 50 words and now is speaking short sentences and having pretend play.

“If this school closed due to lack of funding my heart, along with many others, would be broken.  I would be scared to know where my autistic daughter would go knowing that she is absolutely thriving in this environment,” Harwood said.

According to Kathy Gulje of the county education office the school started losing revenue several years ago when they had to stop taking in infants because of state and federal regulations.

“We can’t operate a care facility with infant/toddlers anymore, it has to be home based now. Without those grants and monies we received from infant care, it put a great stress we were hoping to resolve. We have tried everything we can think of to fund Zaca, but it needs to go back to being privately run,” Gulje said.

Gulje said if anyone is interested in operating the Zaca Center as a non-profit the county would be willing to hand over the operation with all the equipment provided they get a lease extension from the homeowner’s association in Rancho de Maria.

If you are interested in learning more about Zaca and potentially taking over the school, Gulje said to contact her at She can put you in touch with the homeowner’s association to learn about the lease agreement and costs of operation.